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by Michael Portantiere

Daniel McDonald: True Love

  • True Love


    There are lots of exceptions to the rule that "only the good die young," but this famliar statement might as well have been coined in reference to Daniel McDonald. Generally regarded as one of the nicest, most-life-loving men in show business, Daniel -- who appeared on Broadway in Steel Pier, High Society, and Mamma Mia!, in addition to having done quite a bit of TV and film work -- succumbed to a brain tumor last year, at age 46.

    "When Daniel got sick, he was performing in Mamma Mia!," recalls his wife, Mujah. "I took him to the ER. He was supposed to do a show that night, but they found the tumor, and he never made it back to the show. He deteriorated very fast; he had just about the worst type of tumor you can have. My first thought was of our children, Fosco and Ondina, but my second thought was that I would never see Daniel on stage again. What a horrible way to be snatched away from doing what he loved."

    One way in which the McDonalds dealt with the unimaginable news of Daniel's terminal condition was to quickly plan to record him singing songs that meant a great deal to both of them, including selections from Steel Pier and High Society. Those sessions have now been released by the Ghostlight label as a CD titled Daniel McDonald: True Love. Proceeds from sales of the album will benefit Team Continuum, a cancer patient support organization that was of great help to Daniel and his family during the final months of his life.

    "We made a list of songs we thought would be important for Daniel to record if he wasn't going to make it," Mujah tells me. "Our kids were so small -- they still are -- and, of course, we were thinking about them. What did we want them to remember about daddy? One of the things that gave Daniel great joy was music and singing; he used to sing with the kids all the time. So we thought, let's go into a recording studio and just play. We weren't thinking about releasing a CD. It was really about us as a family, making the kids feel like they were part of what daddy did. Their voices are on the CD, and I sing 'They Can't Take That Away From Me' with Daniel -- even though I'm not a singer. We used to sing that song a lot. In fact, as we left the hospital for the last time, we started singing it right then and there.

    "I felt that Daniel never got this last bow," Mujah continues, "so I promised him that we would do some sort of event as a proper closing night." She was true to her word: A combination CD release party and memorial service for Daniel was held at Joe's Pub on Monday evening, June 16, featuring performances of songs from the disc by former castmates including Karen Ziemba and Jim Newman (Steel Pier), a very pregnant Melissa Errico (High Society), and a large contingent from the company of Mamma Mia! There was also a lovely, moving piano piece from Steel Pier played by John Kander, composer of that score as well as Cabaret, Chicago, etc., and a few unforgettable moments of sweet music from Daniel's beautiful wife and children.

    Among the selections on the CD are "You've Got That Thing," "Fly Me to the Moon," "Smile," and "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails." Michael Hashim is musical director and plays saxophone; Jesse Gelber is the main pianist, with Sayuri Goto filling in for one track. And, notes Mujah, "'First You Dream' and 'Second Chance' from Steel Pier are played by John Kander, who loved Daniel very much. Daniel and I were actually married at John's home in the country, and he was our witness.

    "We did the album at a time when Daniel was very, very ill. We didn't know if he could pull it off, but he did. For me, the album is like a message in a bottle for the kids. Recording 'True Love" was very emotional, because he asked me to come into the studio with him, and he sang it to me while I was sitting there. You can hear it all on the CD. The last song Daniel recorded was 'Wonderful World'; after that, he came back home and never left his bed. I feel like we caught something really special in that studio, and just in time. It's not polished; it's very raw and real, and we kept it that way on purpose."

    I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel three times, first for InTheater magazine in connection with his appearance in High Society. Says Mujah, "I was just re-reading that interview. Daniel talks about playing Bill Kelly in Steel Pier, and he says the show is basically about an angel who makes a difference in the life of someone on earth. That's what he did for me. The doctor told me that Daniel probably had the tumor for about six years before we found out -- so, in a way, he wasn't supposed to be here for the entire time I knew him. Daniel gave me my life, my children. And if the CD can help other people by benefiting Team Continuum, then he's still making a difference in people's lives."

    Aside from the CD, Daniel's presence continues to be felt in other ways. "I still have his voice on the answering machine," says Mujah. "I know that troubles some people, but I just don't have the courage to erase it. And Daniel is on the TV commercial for Mamma Mia! that's still running. I think it's kind of wonderful that he's there."

    To purchase a copy of Daniel McDonald: True Love, or to learn more about the project and Team Continuum, visit www.truelovetribute.com and www.teamcontinuum.net.

    Published on Friday, June 20, 2008

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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